Stalin’s Agent

Title:                      Stalin’s Agent

Author:                 Boris Volodarsky

Volodarsky, Boris (2015). Stalin’s Agent: The Life And Death of Alexander Orlov. Oxford: Oxford University Press

LCCN:    2014934427

DK268.O72 .V65 2015


  • This is the history of an unprecedented deception operation – the biggest KGB deception of all time. It has never been told in full until now. There are almost certainly people who would like it never to be told. It is the story of General Alexander Orlov. Stalin’s most loyal and trusted henchman during the Spanish Civil War, Orlov was also the Soviet handler controlling Kim Philby, the British spy, defector, and member of the notorious “Cambridge Five”. Escaping Stalin’s purges, Orlov fled to America in the late 1930s and lived underground. He only dared reveal his identity to the world after Stalin’s death, in his 1953 best-seller The Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes, after which he became perhaps the best known of all Soviet defectors, much written about, highly praised, and commemorated by the US Congress on his death in 1973. But there is a twist in the Orlov story beyond the dreams of even the most ingenious spy novelist: “General Alexander Orlov” never actually existed. The man known as “Orlov” was in fact born Leiba Feldbin. And while he was a loyal servant of Stalin and the controller of Philby, he was never a General in the KGB, never truly defected to the West after his “flight” from the USSR, and remained a loyal Soviet agent until his death. The “Orlov” story as it has been accepted until now was largely the invention of the KGB—and one perpetuated long after the end of the Cold War. In this meticulous new biography, Boris Volodarsky, himself a former Soviet intelligence officer, now tells the true story behind “Orlov” for the first time. An intriguing tale of Russian espionage and deception, stretching from the time of Lenin to the Putin era, it is a story that many people in the world’s intelligence agencies would almost definitely prefer you not to know about.


  • Pt. I FELDBIN, AKA NIKOLSKY, AKA NIKOLAEV, AKA GOLDIN, AKA ORLOV — 1. Bobruisk and Moscow — 2. Paris: August 1926-December 1927 — 3. Berlin: January 1928-April 1931 — Interlude 1 First American Adventure: September-November 1932 — 4. Vienna: April-July 1933 — 5. Geneva and Paris: Operation express, July 1933-May 1934 — 6. Enterprise ‘O’ — 7. Vienna, Copenhagen, and London: 19 June-25 July 1934 — Interlude 2 London: September-December 1934 — 8. London: January-March 1935 — 9. Copenhagen: Early 1935 — 10. Comrade Resident: June-September 1935 — 11. Home, Sweet Home: October 1935-September 1936 — pt. II IN SPAIN — 12. The Backdrop: Spilling the Spanish Beans — 13. Moscow, Madrid, and Valencia: August 1936-January 1937 — 14. The Internationals — 15. Juzik will be called Artur — 16. NKVD and their ‘Neighbours’, 1937 — 17. The Secret History of Orlov’s Crimes: January 1937-July 1938 — 18. The POUM Affair: Operation Nikolai — 19. Murder in Lausanne — 20.1938 and Beyond — pt. III THE ORLOV LEGACY — Interlude 3 The Letter — 21. From Trotsky to Tito — 22. True Lies — 23. The Affair called ‘Agent Mark’ — 24. M15: Secrets of Personal File 605.075 — 25. KGB in the Law Quad — 26. In and Out of the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire — 27. Comrade Walter — 28. Conclusion: Behind Closed Curtains — Appendices — I. Dr Arnold Deutsch — II. Soviet Agents, Suspected Agents, Collaborators, and Sympathizers — III. Documents.


Date Posted:      January 6, 2017

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[2]

The cover of the 6 April 1953 issue of Life magazine pictured “TV’s First Family: Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz” and their children, Lucy Desiree and baby Desi IV. But that is probably not what caught the FBI’s eye: the upper right-hand corner featured the title of the lead article: “Stalin’s Ghastly Secrets—How He Won and Held Absolute Power, by An Ex-General of Dreaded NKVD.” “Who is this NKVD general?” asked J. Edgar Hoover. No one in the FBI had ever heard of him.[3] The Life article—the first of five—identified him as Alexander Orlov, and the Bureau soon learned that he had been living in the United States since he defected in 1938 and had never been debriefed. Orlov would go on to publish the articles in book form and later testify about the Soviet security services before a Senate committee.[4] He would eventually be debriefed by the FBI and the CIA.

After his death in 1973, articles and books were published about the case. Now former GRU officer Boris Volodarsky has taken a revisionist look at Orlov in Stalin’s Agent. His central thesis asserts that much of what has been written about Orlov is incorrect. In addition to many inaccuracies concerning his NKVD career, Volodarsky aims “to prove” that “Orlov” was not in fact Orlov, that he was not a defector, and that he had never been a general. He did not recruit Burgess, Philby, Maclean, and Blunt or any member of the Oxford spy ring[5], as widely believed. The sources for his “proofs” are “original documents from the KGB archives… declassified documents from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of lnvestigation (FBI), MI5 (British Security Service), and the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST).” (p. 2)

Before commenting on Volodarsky’s claims of career inaccuracies, the other charges can be considered quickly. Itis true that Orlov was not Orlov: his real name—Leon Lazarevich Feldbin, later changed in the Soviet Union to Lev Nikolsky—was public knowledge after he surfaced in 1953. He kept the Orlov name when he was given permanent resident status.[6] And while Volodarsky calls him a “deserter”, to the FBI and CIA, he was a genuine defector—albeit an unusual one. The question as to his rank remains ambiguous; Volodarsky says there was no such rank when Orlov was in the NKVD. And while it is true that some publishers called him a general, when he testified before the Senate committee, he was referred to as “Mr.” and as a former Soviet diplomat. Similarly, there was no mention of his rank in his book on Stalin’s crimes. Finally, the authors who claim Orlov was involved in the recruitment of Burgess, Philby, and Maclean, document their positions and Volodarsky does not refute them with facts. Moreover, Orlov had left London long before Blunt was recruited and no one has claimed he had anything to do with the so-called Oxford Ring.[7]

Turning to Orlov’s early life and his NKVD career, Volodarsky’s voluminous book challenges many details found in other public sources. These include putative discrepancies in his assignments, job titles, travel details, his operational accomplishments and his professional relationships with colleagues and superiors. He is particularly harsh about Orlov’s poor performance in Spain where Orlov was head of the NKVD element, though he does note that he received the Order of Lenin while serving there, (p. 236) hardly a measure of Stalin’s dissatisfaction. Nevertheless, it is fair to conclude that Orlov may have embellished his credentials and that previous biographers may not have had solid sources. As to whether Volodarsky has got it right, only a thorough source comparison will tell.

Stalin’s Agent provides an unexpected windfall beyond the Orlov story. Volodarsky’s voluminous research allowed him to include much new detail about Orlov’s NKVD and GRU colleagues and political acquaintances. In fact, most of the book is about these figures, their operations, and their mostly unsuccessful efforts to survive the purges. The aggregate is a stunning portrait of Soviet intelligence officers and operations from WWI to the Cold War.

A final word about Volodarsky’s source material is essential because he states in his acknowledgments that the “declassified KGB, CIA, FBI and French DST files” were provided by Hayden Peake! (p. viii) When I was queried about this claim by British historian Nigel West, I replied it was untrue and I was as surprised as he was to read it. West then e-mailed Volodarsky for an explanation. Volodarsky replied with an astonishing correction. He wrote, “thanks to Pete Bagley [a former CIA officer) I received all the CIA-FBI-DST-KGB staff [stuff?] from the CIA.” As to his “original documents from the KGB archives,” mentioned above, he added that “honestly, I did not have direct access to the KGB files.”[8]

In sum, Stalin’s Agent gets high marks for its robust coverage of Soviet intelligence while its treatment of British and American operations is a bit knotty and open to other interpretations. Thus Orlov ends up with a blurry legacy, which may have been Volodarsky’s intention, and the reader is left with areas of uncertainty.


[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 3, Fall/Winter 2015, pp. 125-126). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at

[3] Information provided to the author by retired FBI Special Agent, Robert Lamphere, on 17 November 1994.

[4] Orlov, Alexander (1953). The Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes. New York: Random House. [LCCN: 53010362]

[5] This is an error. Philby, Burgess, et al. were from Cambridge, not Oxford.

[6] Brook-Shepherd, Gordon (1978). The Storm Petrels: The Flight of The First Soviet Defectors. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

[7] I [F. Wilson] met Volodarsky in England some years ago and listened to him speak. I questioned him about Spetznaz in Vietnam. He snapped at me, “There was no Spetznaz” at that time. Of course there were ”special troops” in Vietnam, although not formally so designated. In my view Volodarsky adjusts facts to suit his pitches.

[8] E-mail from Boris Volodarsky to Nigel West, 16 February 2015. Copy in the author’s [Hayden Peake] possession.

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